The road to activism today seems to have forked into the online world and the ‘real’ world. And while occupiers settle in or withdraw in the face of winter, impatient civic governments and a somewhat fatigued public, any discernible message that may have evoked real social change or even a discourse that went beyond the idea that the 99 per cent is broke and don’t enjoy it seems to have been lost among the cross talk that is Occupy.
There have been plenty on online initiatives that encourage people to show their support for various causes by clicking on a box, joining an email list or simply tweeting something. If activism is to be interpreted in any literal way this would seem to be the least method to supposedly effect a change.
Clicktivism or slacktivism, as this type of activism has been dubbed, has been heralded as a marketing fad by the Guardian’s Micah White. In his article Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism White writes on one of the first online political vehicles known as MoveOn and how it blended marketing with activism to create a tidy packaging of something that has historically always been messy, namely protest or its fluffy cousin activism.
The organization was founded in ‘97 when a couple, a marketing vice-president and a computer programmer, sold their software company, After Dark, known for the iconic and perhaps ironic flying toaster screensaver, and decided to bring their political leanings to the world wide web.
Novel for its combination of the ideology of marketing with the skills of computer programming, MoveOn is a major centre-leftist pro-Democrat force in the US. It has since been heralded as the model for 21st-century activism, according to White. The result of this has been a methodological shift in what is perceived as vehicles to social change and political engagement, or clicktivism.
White foresaw a population of people who had become disenchanted when he wrote the article on August 12, 2010.
“Against the progressive technocracy of clicktivism, a new breed of activists will arise. In place of measurements and focus groups will be a return to the very thing that marketers most fear: the passionate, ideological and total critique of consumer society. Resuscitating the emancipatory project the left was once known for, these activists will attack the deadening commercialisation of life. And, uniting a global population against the megacorporations who unduly influence our democracies, they will jettison the consumerist ideology of marketing that has for too long constrained the possibility of social revolution.”
While White’s leanings are quite apparent it certainly seems that he is tuned into what occupiers are acting out about —granted, he is a contributing editor of Adbusters; the publication that, supposedly, called people to Occupy in the first place.
Activism cannot be a blanket term for all areas of the world either. In places where having a computer is a luxury and public demonstrations may be dealt with by means of extreme violence —and returned in kind— social media is an important tool. The Iranian student protests of May 2010 saw the U. S. State Department asking Twitter administrators not to do its regular maintenance of the site because it could impede on protestors communications, and keep in mind that it was used for the most part as a means for people to organize. High risk is generally what’s involved when one wants to make any meaningful social change, according to award winning journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell.
In an article in the New Yorker called Small Change, Gladwell writes about the varying degrees to which social media can effect a real change. When a bone marrow drive that was begun by a concerned friend goes viral and someone finds a matching donor that’s considered a difference being made. The media loves these stories, so we often do hear about them. But, Gladwell points out, a participant is not likely to be chased by people wielding weapons of some sort because they participated in a bone marrow drive for someone they don’t know.
The group of hacker-activists known as Anonymous threatened the civic government of Toronto with their imminent removal from the Internet should the Occupiers be removed from their camp in the city. It would seem that yet another arm of online activism has far more bark than it has bite, and again there seems to be no real risk taken here in terms of attaching one’s face to an increasingly unpopular cause. The civil rights movement was pretty unpopular too… for a while.
What most advocates and critics of online advocacy agree on is that the Internet is an amazing tool, if used effectively, and in a doctoral paper published by the Copenhagen Business School Julie Uldam tends to agree. The paper, Fickle Commitment. Fostering political engagement in ’the flighty world of online activism’ provides evidence for the case that online activism can be used to “activate” people, but adds that there is a difference between online activism and “offline” activism.
The study asserts that if the point of online activism is to physically bring people together within their communities to exercise their rights in the interest of the greater good then it’s a reasonably good tool. The study emphasized the idea that people engaging one another face to face is key in people feeling genuinely involved, and building relationships within these organizations is what becomes key when trying to maintain solidarity and longevity.
The bottom line is that activism is about being active. Every movement that made any kind of significant change mobilized communities in strategic ways to commence some sort of societal justice.
Loni Big Crow, an activist who said she has been Occupying Calgary since the beginning of the local protests, said she thinks that the sense of family that she found there is irreplaceable and that it doesn’t matter what people do or read online. The experience of hearing each other’s stories and seeing the expression on someone’s face brings them together.
“I’ve met people here who just seem so beaten, but when they’ve told their story it seems like less of a burden on them and more for the whole group to carry together,” Big Crow said. “People can blog about whatever they want but until you’re here you can’t know what it’s like to really believe in what you’re doing.”